Ridgefield, North Carolina, 1983
When it opened in 1957, the Robert Ridgefield Library had been the
tallest building in Ridgefield - a nine-story neoclassical behemoth of granite and glass, columns and cornices, with an incongruous cupola perched uncomfortably on top.
The Ridgefields had come to North Carolina from Scotland just after the revolution and had spent the next two centuries going from success to success. A moderately wealthy nineteenth-century merchant family, they had become impressively wealthy in tobacco, then excessively wealthy in textiles, and now obscenely wealthy in banking. Along the way, they had turned a backwater two-year Bible college into the nationally recognized Ridgefield University.
The library had been built atop Ridgefield's highest point - a hill on the edge of campus previously favored by students for late-night trysts. From the upper floors one could view the countryside around Ridgefield for miles- a patchwork of corn and tobacco, clouds of dust rising from the horizon as pickup trucks sped down gravel roads. In the Georgia granite above the library's main entrance were carved the words, "Let those who enter here seek not only knowledge but wisdom."
The moment Peter walked into the library for the first time, passing from the blazing sun of a North Carolina August into the cool dimness of its narrow corridors, its miles of shelving, its million and a half books, he felt at home. He was eighteen and had lived his life on that very farmland that was visible from the top of the library - a world in which he had always felt awkwardly out of place. His family had run a general store in a small town eight miles from Ridgefield, until his father's neglect of the business sent it into bankruptcy. After that his parents seemed more interested in drinking and fighting than in spending time with their son. He had often gazed at the strange white building on the horizon and dreamed of a different life, a life free from the encumbrances of family and the daily interactions at school with people who understood him no better than he understood them. He dreamed of a life protected from everything outside of himself, but protected by what he could not imagine.
He had tried various ways of insulating himself over the years. As a youngster he spent most of his free time in his room with his stamp collection, meticulously mounting stamps and trying not to think of the wider world that those little rectangles of paper represented. During high school, he had taken to sequestering himself in the basement with a pair of headphones and a stack of classical records. But however carefully he mounted the stamps, however loudly he played the music, he could never quite escape. A part of him always knew that the world still existed outside his door and that, ultimately, he could not avoid it.
Peter had won a scholarship to Ridgefield, and freshman orientation had been a harrowing experience, focused on "getting to know" people. Peter did not want to know people. What he wanted was to find that world-within-the-world where he could be himself by himself. Following his tour guide through the foyer of the library into the stacks, he suspected he may have found that place. Lagging behind the tour and slipping into the rows of stacks that disappeared into darkness, Peter discovered exactly what would protect him: books.
It took him only a few weeks to secure a work-study position in the library. It was nirvana. Peter spent four hours a day re-shelving books. Technically, he was part of the Circulation department, but he worked alone, wheeling his cart down the narrow aisles between towers of books, easily avoiding contact with anyone who might be browsing.
Even on those occasions when he had to push his cart through the main reading room, with its wide oak tables and banks of card catalog drawers, Peter remained invisible to his fellow students. The cart would glide almost silently across the smooth marble floor and heads would remain bent over books, his passing no more remarkable than a change in the light streaming in from the high clerestory windows as a cloud moved across the sun.
Excerpted from The Bookman's Tale by Charlie Lovett. Copyright © 2013 by Charlie Lovett. Excerpted by permission of Viking. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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